On Thursday morning, a group of half a dozen men walked in the Route 199 median in James City County, carrying trash pick up sticks and trash bags and trailed by a white work van.
A white work van trailed behind them in the breakdown lane, driven by a Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail employee.
Unlike the average cleanup crew, all of the men wore orange jumpsuits.
Inmates from the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail can be seen almost weekly on roadsides and other public areas. The inmates mow lawns, pick up litter, rake leaves and more.
The goal? Beautify the community.
The jail’s workforce team is part of a partnership with localities in Greater Williamsburg, and a great privilege for a select few inmates, jail Superintendent Tony Pham said.
“It’s not glorious work, but it gets them out of the jail — fresh air,” Pham said. “I call it beautification.”
Gaining the privilege
The jail is able to have workforce team under a section of the Virginia Code.
Pham said workforce crews are required to operate on public lands. Some duties can include maintaining publicly-owned grounds, maintaining public buildings, cleaning landfills or helping with emergency management.
The Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail has two workforce teams, which have a maximum of six inmates and a corrections officer. On work days, one year goes to the York-Poquoson area, and the other goes to Williamsburg-James City County.
The localities designate where the inmates go, Pham said.
“You escalate to a level of trust where you can get to go outside,” Pham said. “I don’t think people on the outside understand what a huge carrot that is.”
Being an inmate on the workforce team is a privilege only certain inmates can receive. Inmates on the team must already be sentenced and not have charges pending against them. They must also be classified as “low-risk offenders.”
Some inmates never obtain a high enough classification to be on the workforce team.
“Not all inmates are going to qualify,” Pham said.
The workforce team is part of a tiered system of work privileges VPRJ inmates can have. The lowest level is pod worker, where inmates can do work around their housing units. After pod worker, there are jobs in the kitchen and laundry room that give inmates more freedom to move about the jail. After the inner-jail jobs, some inmates can become part of the workforce team.
Finally, inmates who have a court order or who qualify can get work release, meaning they are able to work unsupervised during the day at a regular job, then return to the jail at night.
The workforce program can also present its own set of challenges.
Having inmates on the “outside” without ankle monitors or other means of detention can open up the opportunity for those inmates to pick up prohibited items.
But the jail has some measures in place to prevent contraband from making its way inside the jail walls.
The workforce teams are kept fairly small so corrections officers can properly supervise them. Workforce inmates are strip-searched when they return to the jail.
The jail also periodically does sweeps of the facility with drug and nicotine dogs.
Women are not on the workforce teams. While it’s possible to have a female workforce crew, Pham said there typically aren’t enough women inmates eligible or interested to comprise an entire team. The female population at the VPRJ currently totals about 10 percent of the entire jail population.
Men and women inmates need to be separated at all times, meaning the workforce team cannot be more than one gender.
As far as safety on the job, the jail is required to give medical care to inmates if they are hurt while working — regardless of whether they’re working inside the jail or on the workforce team.
The jail is also responsible for assigning the inmates tasks that are reasonable and won’t put them in danger, Pham said.
While inmates may come and go from the program, Pham said he continues to keep the teams running, in part as a public service.
“The public puts an immense amount of trust in us,” he said.